Adam Sandler proves he can do more than just be a golfer, an adult going back to grade school or a wedding singer. He proves to the academy that he is more than just a funny face and shines like a gem in the Safdie Brothers crime thriller “Uncut Gems”. It’s kinetic, electric, pulse pounding, harrowing and brutally intense. There isn’t a moment that is wasted as every action and consequence feels realistic and everything gets a payoff. “Uncut Gems” is gritty and jagged in the inspired style of producer Martin Scorsese’s films. This is the sleeper hit of the year.
Adam Sandler has done his fair share of dramatic roles over his lustrous career, trying to shy away from what made him a comedic box office win. His dramatic turns in “Reign On Me”, “Punch Drunk Love” and “Spanglish” are my favorites. While he does an admirable job in all the mentioned roles, none of them is quite like that of his jewel dealing and gambling addict character Howard Ratner.
Sandler has been receiving an unprecedented amount of rave reviews for his work (rightfully he deserves it) in the Safdie Brothers kinetic, electric, pulse pounding, harrowing and brutally intense “Uncut Gems”. It’s one of the most authentic realistic deep-dives into the world of the gambling addiction ever put on film. The Safdie’s takes us into a rarely examined world of the Diamond District of Midtown Manhattan. There isn’t a moment in “Uncut Gems”, two hour and fifteen minute running time that isn’t completely intoxicating.
“Uncut Gems” is a thriller, black comedy and part dysfunctional family drama and it works on all of it’s genres. The Safdie Brothers bring a gritty and jagged style of early Martin Scorsese films, although they might have had some help with that having Martin Scorsese as a producer on the film.
The tale is set in the recent past of 2012, in New York City. Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a goateed, leather jacketed, bling-wearing jeweler who makes no shame that he is a hustler through and through. Whether Howard is behind the counter at his jewelry store trying to sell gaudy chains or trying to smooth things over with his wife Dinah (played by “Frozen” voice actress and singer Idina Menzel) or his gorgeous mistress Julia (played by my new celebrity crush Julia Fox in a breakthrough role). The troubles don’t end there for Howard as he also tries to ditch menacing tough guys threatening to kill him day in and day out. Howard is always on the run in one way or another.
Things start to get deeper for Howard when he smuggles an uncut gem of a stone studded with black opals, newly arrived from the underground mines of Ethiopia. Howard thinks it could be worth a million dollars when he puts it up for auction in a few days. But when basketball superstar Kevin Garnett and his entourage visit Howard’s store while the Celtics are in town to take on the Knicks. Garnett is instantly mesmerized by the opal and asks if he can borrow it for a few days. He’ll even let Howard hang on to his NBA championship ring as collateral.
Oh but Kevin really doesn’t know Howard. While Garnett goes on to have a monster game, he truly believes it’s because the opal has magic powers. He’s going to hang onto the opal just a little longer. I know so far the premise sounds ridiculously stupid. Believe me it’s far from silly as it might sound. From here on out things just get worse for Howard and to protect the integrity of the storyline. I will stop there and let you discover what comes next.
Let’s just say things get ugly in more ways than one. Played with raw, ferocious intensity by Sandler, his character Howard is not without his charms and charisma, but we are never asked to like him. He doesn’t even ask his wife, his three children or the girlfriend he claims to love to like him. He just wants them to be there in his life because he knows if he doesn’t have them, he has no one and nothing. Sandler conveys this expertly in a scene of Howard breaking down. It’s one of his best pieces of acting. Howard even understands why his bookie, who also happens to be a member of his extended family just might have to kill him.
Performances all around are dynamic, but Sandler is a beast, losing himself completely in the part. Sandler’s role of Howard feels like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro would have played twenty years ago. Playing Howard is a tough role for anyone to pull off, but Sandler nails it by betting big and going all-in on making Howard repulsive in some ways, but oddly charismatic in others. There are moments when you think that he has hit rock bottom…but think again, he hasn’t hit full rock bottom. If the Safdie’s intentions was to make the film feel real. The Safdie’s pulled it off as each action and consequence portrayed in the film could actually happen.
As repulsive as he is, you can’t help but root for him. Sandler’s performance of an addicted gambler ranks right up there the work of Edward Norton and Matt Damon in “Rounders”, and James Caan in “The Gambler”. It’s the most effective film made about gambling since Edward Norton and Matt Damon’s “Rounders”, twenty plus years ago. “Uncut Gems” is dazzling and the directors have an ability to maintain a level of emotional clarity in the middle of all the chaos. It’s a wild ride that grabs you right from the very first frame until the end credits.
The Safdie Brothers carries on with their filmmaking style of crazy shifts in tone, ranging from black comedy to brutal explosions of violence, while mixing in a thriller and family drama. It can easily look and feel messy but it all works brilliantly. This is another kickass work of indie cinema from A24, who further their reputation of making edgy indie fare. I hope this revitalizes Sandler’s career and gives him awards recognition, not to mention I hope he pursues more roles like this. “Uncut Gems” is a film that races at such a pace, continually raising the stakes to absurd degrees where each moment pays off. This is the sleeper hit of the year.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)